Archive for December, 2008


December 29, 2008




We are in that peculiar soft-centred hiatus between Christmas, strewn with chocolate wrappers and discarded paper hats and gift tags and exhausted Selotape, and a shiny brand New Year.


Pause for thought.


Does the Time really go faster when you’re a Grown Up or does it just appear that way? Time a Whirling Dervish.








Slipping. Slipping too quickly between my desperately grasping fingers.  Time a stereotypetoofastblur


I read a poem with my son. For English.


I stumble upon a phrase Tallow. Perishable Treasure.


Christmas Candles, I think.






And Time. Molten. Melting. Disappearing. Precious, precious Time.


Hat wished Christmas would hurry up.


Don’t wish your life away, I warned. As my mother warned me.


Now, with Christmas over, she wishes she hadn’t. Wished it upon us so fast.


But she is too little to worry about liquid days, fluid hours, a deluge of weeks that are submerged by months. So that before we know it next Christmas will come flooding in.


I wish Thursday would hurry up and come, she says.


On Thursday we are going to the beach.


I want to tack Time down. To fasten it firmly where I can keep an eye on it.  Quicksilver Mercurial Time won’t have it though.


Despite my efforts.


I take photographs.









To capture a single moment. So that, weeks, months, years from now, I can cast my mind back. Back in Time. And smile. And say, ‘Do you remember that Christmas …?’


And I gather a collection of words. Round them up. So that they might evoke a single day – an hour within a single day if I am lucky – with perfectly articulated precision. So that I might taste the honeyed saltiness of a ham, so that I might remember the piquancy of the Real English Mustard that accompanied it, so that I might recall my children’s smiles as they opened a particular gift, so that I might picture the storm that swept Christmas morning in so that power was swept out and stockings opened to candlelight cast at dawn. So that I might remember.


So that I might pin Time down. For a moment.


With my back to December, I face January. Briefly I am mythical two-faced Janus. If I were to catalogue my past year alphabetically, I wonder, what would I list under A?


I am an A. So is my eldest daughter. And my Husband. A for Africa.

B for my son. And Bush. I Live In The Bush.

C for Cyberspace. I live there too.

D-for-Dogs and walking on a Dam, E, F, G … H for Hat. My sustenance in O-for-Outpost. And Hats. To protect my A-for-African-weathered S-for-Skin and Sunny and Sandy and Solitary existence.

M gets the Most though: M defines Me, a Mum: Motherhood. Marriage. Madness. Absorbed by the first two, I tread respectfully, carefully tip-toe, about the third. My geography tempts it too close sometimes. Burton is his Anatomy of Melancholy (another one, another M): Be not solitary (too late, I am). Be not idle.


So I try not to be. And in this soft-centred hollow carved by retiring 2008 and incoming 2009, I scribble resolutions: understand more, worry less, learn French.


Don’t waste Time.









Sated Need

December 21, 2008



We are a Full House.




The laundry basket is suppurating across the bathroom floor, the contents of full bags unceremoniously upended into it. There will be clean socks amongst that lot. I just know it. They couldn’t be bothered to sift the wheat from the chaff. Nor can I. It’ll all be tossed into the washing machine later. Dozens of damp towels hang forlornly from rails. The kitchen counters are perpetually glazed with honey or sprinkled with incriminating post sandwich making crumbs. The air is thick with noise and spats and Christmas secrets. Doors are slammed mid gift wrapping, I said Do Not Come In.


And I am happy.


Breakfast does not end until eleven o’clock as the last of the sleepy head stragglers stumbles from their beds seeking sustenance. And then – almost immediately – I am obliged to forage for lunch. To feed my own metaphorical five thousand.  For all my babies are home.  And my Mum; she is with us.


Will Gran come for Christmas? the children enquired anxiously.


Yes, I said, emphatic. The monster Depression, who hung insistently over her shoulder for the first six months of this year has been banished. Gone. Out Damn Spot, Out! I laugh. Hysteria and relief and joy makes my laughter mad loud.


What’s for pudding?


What’s for tea?


What’s for supper?


Can I have a sandwich?


And I am happy.


We walk the dam in search of a Christmas tree.




I am salved by our choice: already executed by fire-wood hunters, I feel less guilty dragging our prize home.  And we decorate it. All of us.  And I wonder if it knows the brief passing final moment of lit and ribboned glory we have bestowed upon it: the tree, in its dying days. I think it does; I watch it shimmy, radiant in a passing-out gown of glass baubles and bead angels. And this year I prevail upon my son, ‘Please hang this up for me – up there – (and I point) I can’t reach’. And I am teased. Little Mama, they laugh.




And we string excessively long lengths of fairy lights and drape kitschy tinsel atop picture frames and light candles so that our fish pie is elevated from humble supper to decadently spangled feast. (The Heinz tomato sauce has never been accompanied by such finery). A whole huge dish vanishes. My five thousand were hungry.




 What’s for pudding?. Mince pies and ice cream. And home-made chocolate truffles because the necessity – the intrinsic need – to nurture a nestful has winkled me out of any lurking reverie of lonely, redundancy. Has energized me.


And I clear plates and stack them in the sink and snuff candles with spit damp fingers.


And I think, “God, I’m lucky’’.


And I am happy.


Chocolate Truffles



140g Digestive biscuits

220g icing sugar

50g cocoa powder

100g butter, melted

A tsp instant coffee dissolved in a little boiling water. Or a good dollop of brandy or alternative Christmas tipple


Bung biscuits into the MagiMix and whiz until course crumbs. Add everything else and whiz again until well meshed together and damp enough to form small balls – about the size of a walnut. If too dry simply splash a little more coffee/brandy in.


Roll truffles to required size in the palm of your hand, decorate as desired, tip into paper cake cases and freeze.  Remove a few minutes before eating, just to take the chill off.


If there are any left, stick them back in the fridge for tomorrow. Or later.





Happy Christmas everybody. And thank for precious valuable company. x

A Tin of Biscuits

December 18, 2008


We are emerging, blinking, into the light. Groping our way out of the dark, tentatively confident, following a 48 hour power cut.  We daren’t blow out metaphorical candles, lest we chase the electricity away. My grandmother stubbornly refused to bring the washing in off the line when a storm threatened in case we scared precious rain off. I am reminded of her as I write.


There wasn’t any laundry on my line though – when the rain came down, heavy and soaking and black; my washing machine has been languishing idle for most of the week.


And I have tried not to.


I have to try to pin my softly malleable Outpost days down. Define within them some sense of direction, a purpose. Or they will slip between my fingers and escape beyond my reach like the slippery yolks of freshly cracked eggs. And I shall have nothing to show for them.


What shall I do today? I ask myself when I rise.


It is harder when there is no electricity. The house comes lurching to soundless standstill so that the encouraging prompts of text messages and music and the internet are muted as power leaches from the vehicles that transport them into our muffled far-away isolation. And in the absence of lights to cast a friendly glow upon a room made gloomy by storms outside, it seemed cold and unfeeling.


That silence and the dark rendered the Outpost especially trying this week.


I sought to follow my small daughter’s example. I battled to keep as busy as she. I sat on a floor with her and made gift tags for presents which we later wrapped. We sourced last year’s Christmas cards and cut and pasted and coloured with felt tip pens. In the almost total absence of anything remotely festive about our geography (no Christmas Carols emanating from non existent malls, no decorations in the absent supermarket) I have found my little girl’s determined persistence to infect me with her excitement touching and, in the end for how could it not be, contagious.


But this morning when she awoke after a bad night of dreams that torched and flared her sleep so that it was not deep, she was uncharacteristically tearful. She had no energy for Christmas, she said. I was especially glad, then, that she had worked so hard to communicate her eager anticipation to me.


Let’s make biscuits, I said. Once, perhaps, once when I had a life, a busy one with friends and school runs and commissions and places to be, I might have thought baking biscuits an indulgence. Or dismissed it: too Earth Mother, I am more important than that. But now, now when I know that a single task, no matter its apparent banality, might be the only thing that stands between me and insanity, I try not to think of the life I used to have.


And so we did. Make biscuits. We pummelled soft dough with floury hands and rolled it on a board and cut it into hearts and moons and stars which we decorated. And I think Hat’s day was better after that.  


And I stuck my tongue out at the Outpost and thumbed my nose at it. my little girl is bigger than you are. For in spite of its trials, it did not beat me this week. I’m not unscathed. But I am still standing.


And I have a tin of biscuits to prove it.











Big Pictures, Little Things

December 14, 2008



Sometimes I think I must be compelled to take pictures that reflect the dizzying variation of life’s proportions from one week to the next.



Last week life was Big. Big drives. Big spaces. Big distances. Big, big crocodiles lying log-like upon spits of sands fast shrinking in a river swollen with rain.






Last week was cross-border big. Long waits in airport queues. Longer ones in the consultant’s surgery in a big city hospital.


I hear my son behind the curtain where the doctor is examining him.


Breathe in. Breathe out.


I hear my son do as he is told.


‘Where are you from?’ the doctor wants to know.


I hear my youngman son’s big new voice: ‘Northamptonshire …?’.


‘Northamptonshire, hey?’ the doctor repeats as he exits the curtain.


Not really I tell him. My son’s great grandfather arrived here more than a century ago; we have been here ever since. (I don’t tell him my children feel obliged, as they grapple for Home, to snatch Northamptonshire up simply because that’s where their granny lives, simply because they fear that to say Here may seem presumptuous).


Hah! Laughs the doctor, ‘you are as African as I then’, he tells my son who reappears buttoning his shirt. ‘We are just a different colour, that’s all’.


My son smiles. Later he confides, ‘I liked that doctor, Mum; he made me feel at home’.


We share a bedroom in my sister’s house. My six-foot son sleeps on a mattress on the floor beside my bed.  We talk after lights out. Teens find their tongues late in the day. I have learned that. I have learned not to say, ‘I’m too tired to talk’. I yawn as quietly as I can.  I tell my son a story, I tell him I have brave siblings. He tells me he has a brave mama. And slow, silent tears slip down my cheeks and slide into my pillow; I want to tell him I am not always brave. But I want him to believe I am more. Later I trip over long legs flayed when I stumble to the bathroom in the deep big dark of night.   And I remember a time when I used to tuck that seventeen year stretched body up.  I drag the duvet over big exposed size 11 feet. For old time’s sake.



And now, now back here, the Outpost – all bright eyed and fatly-bushy tailed after rain – telescopes life to the little things.

And I am forced to fill my cavernous days with as much small stuff as I can gather up and cram into them.

To Making Jam.


I forage for inspiration and ingredients in the market, just a mile away and fetid with steamy between-storms heat and over ripe fruit spilling its guts onto the sand where blue bottles feast greedily until they are sated and quite intoxicated.


I buy Christmas plums; re routing the fate of the few pounds I purchase from compost to conserve.  I argue the price. Why so much I want to know? But the vendors are not interested in haggling; they don’t care if today’s plums suffer the same suppurating fate as yesterdays.






And I buy mangos, harvested from the Outpost’s proliferation of trees, which are luxuriant green and generous with their shade now, they are bedecked abundantly with crop as if simulating their own festive decoration.  They are the legacy of the slavers. Such bitter irony disguised by fruit so plumply sweet the flesh strains against rosy orange skins and streaks it with sugary tears. 






And I come home to make Spicy Plum Jam and Mango Chutney and I do not know what thoughts fill my head as I weigh and wash and peel. Perhaps I do not think. Perhaps all I know as I sift stones from warmly silken preserve with my fingers is that my small kitchen smells like an obediently happy one.  I watch with satisfaction as the fruit bubbles claret in a pan and I smile later when I notice redwine stains dripped across the kitchen counter where I have carelessly poured my small achievement into jars. And I think it looks as if I have thrown a Christmas party for invisible guests between the fridge and the stove.




Spicy Plum Jam


(adapted from Clare Macdonald’s Sweet Things)


2 lbs plums, washed

Half a pint wine vinegar

A stick of cinnamon

A generously rounded teaspoon of mixed spice (I substituted with Zanzibari Tea Masala assuming the ingredients – cloves, cardamom, ginger and pepper – in the absence of the prescribed  to be similar)

A little less than 2 lbs granulated sugar.


Bung everything but the sugar into a pan and simmer gently for about half an hour or until plums look as if they are releasing their grip on their stones.


Allow to cool enough that you can plunge your hands into the pot and separate stubborn stones from flesh. It’s like a fruity-smooth hand massage. I recommend it.


Stir in the sugar and dissolve over a gentle heat. Bring to a rapid boil and test for set every few minutes (drop a spoonful onto a saucer, cool and push with your finger, if it wrinkles, it’s ready). Pour into warm jars and seal.


Serve (from a glass dish where it can wink invitingly at diners) with turkey (given the time of year), pork, lamp, fat herb sausages or eat as I did: spread still warm upon bread and feisty cheddar cheese.



Reasons to be Cheerful

December 2, 2008




But you see it does not do to sit and mull. To allow the frustration of becoming an Outpost Captive suppurate and contaminate everything. My mood, Hat’s, Husband’s, the poor dogs.


Stop it. Literally. Plug it before it seeps unchecked onto a pillow. Tears of angry, impotent disappointment. Onto the page, furious, incoherent indignation.


I live here for God’s sake. I have to learn to find some kind of solace in Home.  Even when I don’t want to be here.


So we went for a walk. Why always a walk when Outpost Living threatens to Overwhelm?


Because striding through the bush energizes where disillusionment enervates? Coaxes shyly elusive endorphins to the fore so that I might cerebrally sieve them for happy thoughts? Because it gives me something else to think about; a different, a constantly and gently evolving vista, something new to look at? Because it gets me out, God damn it.


Let’s tackle the big hill, Husband suggested on Sunday morning.


We have meant to since we got here 18 month ago. EIGHTEEN MONTHS, almost two years! Have I teetered on the knife edge of isolating insanity for so long? A lean, tautly held tightrope, wobbling often, gasping at how close I’ve come, then slowly stretching my arms out to steady myself. A tentative sigh as I do; find my feet again.


The hill in question lies west of the dam. A huge outcrop of almost perfectly unbroken rock. A hard, cold shouldered shrug; it couldn’t care less who clambers up its steep slides. We climb it on a morning rendered tender after a night of rain, softly waterlogged and duck down, comfortingly grey. Sometimes you don’t want to witness Africa in all her brightlights glory; sometimes her subdued self is kinder. I needed Africa to be kind that morning.   She was, and generous; yielding small gifts for me to admire: fire engine red and bright sunshine yellow mushrooms (‘are those edible too then?’ I tease Husband who has a dangerous penchant for fungi sampling; “No”, he said shortly);






acacia trees festooned ridiculously, enthusiastically, with pompom blossom, as if they had been let loose in their mother’s dressing up box; tiny delicate violet irises with petals which bruise at the hint of a touch.





We took a flask of tea.





And we climbed until our skin was sweat sheen shiny and our breath short. There is something exhilarating about exhaustion. And the tea was good as we sat high upon our rocky thrones and quietly watched a pearly sky stretch as far as we could see. Far, far until it touched outstretched fingers with the exuberant green shrub that the Rains have rolled out like Astroturf.   Hat read us a poem. The dogs sunk into a puddle.   I thought I heard an aeorplane. And it didn’t matter that I was not on it.




Husband found a swathe of wild red lilies, nodding their heads in affable agreement with the breeze. He dug up a dozen roots, ‘for your garden’, he said. Because he understands that six flowers will make a difference. 





And then he found a host of nicotine stained scorpions curled maliciously under a stone, their stings coiled, he showed Hat: an impromptu biology lesson. And a baby bird, tucked fearful beneath a rock, its chick plumage still evident beneath new-smooth feathers, its tiny breast beating too quick.



Can I take it home? To look after? Hat asked.


No, his mama will be back soon. Best leave it here, where she can find him. Listen, can you hear her calling?


(We couldn’t; and the baby bird was softy, swiftly dying. But when you are 11 you don’t need to know that. When you are 11 your own mama can fib to iron life’s bumps to easier, navigable smoothness).


Oh yes, smiled Hat, tilting her head to the sound we could not hear.


Later we speak to her big sister. Five days since we did. She scaled Kilimanjaro and touched Africa’s Big Big Sky.


And I laugh and I want to cry.


Because things aren’t so bad.





How To … (Second in a new series …)

December 1, 2008


How to cope when your plans to escape Outpost fall apart  


  • Try, when faced with news that your flight is delayed by 1 ½ hours, to remain positive.  Try not to feel irritated that, when you called the airline before leaving home for airport, you were assured everything was running on time.
  • Continue to assert calm optimism when, an hour and a half later, the plane you are supposed to be flying out on has yet to appear on the tarmac. Or – in case of Outpost – dust. Try not to say Fucking Precision Airways every two minutes. Instead pass the time making telephone calls trying to ascertain whether your son, the patient, has left school to meet you yet or not, and wondering whether you ought to stall him
  • Wish you had – stalled him – when Mr Abdallah, local representative from Effing Precision Airways (who are the biggest fibbers in Africa because they suggest they are Tanzania’s Finest and as such ‘successfully networking the entire region with our unique combination of speed, convenience and reliability’) appears to inform passengers in the confidently named Departures Lounge (an airless room with a few benches from which most of those waiting usually depart to car park when told to come back and try again another day) that the flight has been delayed a further 45 minutes.
  • Realise that as a result you will miss your connecting flight north.
  • Try to ascertain from Effing Precision Airways whether there will be an alternative connection later in the day. That they say ‘yes’, you realise, means little given your current predicament.
  • Field calls from desperate son who is now on way to a rendezvous which you look increasingly unlikely to make.
  • And which is confirmed when Mr Abdallah from Effing Precision Airways reappears, looking sheepish, to announce that the expected plane, on account of bad weather and overloading, has had to fly low and therefore needs to take more fuel on board and as a consequence will not be able to take all the passengers or any baggage. Will three passengers please oblige by stepping off the flight, Mr Abdallah asks. You, who have missed your connection anyway, hear only two things: ‘Overloading’ and ‘Bad Weather’. You abandon all your plans and opt off flight with alacrity.
  • You call son to cancel plans, apologizing profusely. He, an equally nervous flyer, has enormous sympathy and kindly says he’d have done the same.  He finds a lift back to school.
  • Call babysitter, doctor, sister in about that order and renegotiate assorted plans and appointments.
  • Call husband and ask if he will please come and collect you from airport as you don’t appear to be going anywhere.   Suggest a beer would be a very good idea.
  • Depart Departure Lounge for Car Park. 
  • Spend weekend sleeping, drinking wine and generally concentrating on keeping firm lid on rising feelings of frustration and disappointment.  Try very hard to keep seeing the funny side: Mr Abdallah’s evident and increasing fear of waiting passengers (especially you) every time he had to step into the Departure’s Lounge with more bad news and Effing Precision’s Airways’ excuse as to their stuff up: shauri ya mungi (God’s fault, essentially, presumably because he choreographed Bad Weather?) and nothing, of course, to do with colossal human ineptitude and error.
  • Monday morning (at which point you should have been in doctor’s surgery with son having his health checked and your anxieties salved) gather frayed courage in both slightly trembling hands and start all over again.
  • ‘Morning, I’d like to make reservations for a flight please …’